Confusing Dilution: Virtual Printers

Has anyone else noticed the number of applications that feel the need to install one or more virtual printers. If you haven’t here’s just a short list of some common applications that register one:

  • Microsoft Office 2007 (XPS & OneNote)
  • Windows Journal

These devices allow you to “print” to their respective applications in some way.

Unless I’m misunderstanding something, these are some quite unique applications of the word print as a verb. At what point does exporting a document to an XPS file cease to be a a save or export operation and mutate into something requiring the installation of a virtual printing device?

Even if I am misunderstanding the metaphor in some crucial way, I wonder how the average non-tech savvy user perceives and deals with these “printers”?

When a user selects Print from the file menu, the majority of the time the intended result is to initiate printing of a physical document.

Typically when a system does not have any printing devices configured, then the operating system asks the user to configure one before continuing. If the user chooses not to configure a printer then the printing operation will fail.

Virtual printing devices dilute this metaphor somewhat. Virtual printing devices are generally used as a means to begin an operation involving the “printed” content using the target application. In the case of the XPS writer Word is used to create an XPS formatted representation of the printed content.

Since virtual printers still count as a device in the printing device class, their presence means that a user with no physical printer would still receive the standard print dialog, and the virtual printer would be selected by default.

What happens when these devices receive print jobs is up to the device driver that registered them, but none of them are likely to do anything that would correspond to the intended action of the user.

While I understand the value that these virtual printers provide for the people who do use them, I would wager that these people are a minority, and I wonder if the majority of users are better served by placing the facilities provided by these printers in other places to avoid the confusion that usually ensues when some foreign application opens because a user sent a print job to a printer they can’t see, which opened an application they don’t use, or didn’t know they had.

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